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Touching from a Distance: Lessons Learned in a Virtual Interview Environment

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The following is a guest blog post by liaison specialist Owen Rogers and is meant to supplement the Veterans History Project’s (VHP) Conducting Virtual Oral History Interviews in Light of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Check back next week to learn more about interviewing veterans in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I first began recording veterans’ oral histories for the Library of Congress, I was a volunteer interviewer using borrowed university equipment. Recording an oral history involved hours of preparation, countless camera practice sessions and plenty of “home remodeling” to adapt veterans’ homes to makeshift oral history studios. After years of oral history recordings, on the road and in the studio, I embraced the mindset of Semper Gumby always flexible.

Oral history projects continue during the COVID-19 pandemic and include both in-person and remotely-recorded interviews. We understand it may be more challenging to do during the pandemic, however, the Veterans History Project prefers that you conduct in-person interviews when it is safe to do so. This blog post collects more than a year of information items, staff experience, user feedback and a review of remotely-recorded Veteran History Project (VHP) submissions. The Project encourages anyone, age 15 or older, to draw on these resources and use the VHP Field Kit, sample interview questions and instructional video to record and preserve stories from the veterans in their lives.

Regardless of format, any oral history recording requires three phases: before the interview, during the interview, and after the interview. One difference between in-person and remotely-recorded interviews, however, is the increased technical responsibility placed on the narrator. When planning an oral history recording, VHP recommends the following techniques to improve remotely-recorded interviews:

Before the Interview

  • When recording interviews at home, provide clear instructions to veterans as to what the background and framing should look like. Be prepared to work with the narrator before the interview to rearrange how they appear in their camera frame.
  • Identify a relatively quiet location for both the interviewer and narrator and make sure that your household knows you will be participating in an oral history recording and respectfully request that they avoid the interview areas. Ask housemates to remain off-camera.
  • Schedule interviews for midday to maximize natural light.
  • Distanced interviews diminish the non-verbal cues and body language that form an emotional connection between the interviewer and narrator. The success of the oral history depends on the interviewer and narrator seeing one another. Neither party should set up their camera facing away from an open window or other light source that obscures their faces. If you can, try to use your hands to encourage the narrator to expand on an answer or invite follow up questions.
Screenshots of man in blue shirt and screenshot of woman in white shirt
Use the above images as a template for your remote oral history recording. Ask your narrator to wear solid colors, orient their device horizontally, and elevate their camera so that their eyes are about 2/3 up on the screen. Do not record the narrator in front of a light source including lamps and open windows.

During the Interview

  • Home settings and network signal strength yield additional interview challenges. Be prepared for social, technical or even meteorological interruptions. VHP staff have experienced recordings where storms have disrupted Wi-Fi connections and housemates interrupt recordings. To enhance the quality of an interview recording, remember the following tips:
  • Interviews can be rescheduled for “rain dates.”
  • If focus is a concern for the interviewer or narrator, wear a headset microphone to block any environmental distractions.
  • Schedule recordings when the fewest amount of people will be sharing a Wi-Fi connection.
  • Turn off all emails, cellphones or other notifications that may interrupt the interview.
  • Some users interpret the VHP’s requirement for “unedited” interviews as cause to continue an interview no matter what. Remember that an interview can be paused during the recording. If the narrator needs to take a break, for whatever reason, stop the recording and continue when the narrator is ready. These starts and stops may produce several video files.

After the Interview

Send hard copies of VHP forms and the interview files via commercial courier to the Library of Congress.  VHP will accept all interviews that meet Project requirements, including interviews conducted remotely. Please remember:

  • All other VHP requirements remain in place, including standards for acceptable formats.
  • Keep in mind that many remote recording apps only support MP3 audio recordings. Audio files are acceptable, however, VHP requires uncompressed WAV audio files.
  • You may convert a video recording into an audio file before submission if you or the veteran do not have a camera on your device.
  • Always a copy of the interview recording to the narrator.

Please contact the Project with any remote interview questions by Asking a Librarian or emailing [email protected].

We encourage you to explore these free additional resources:

Comments (4)

  1. These guidelines will help many, thank you Kerry Ward.
    I’ve bookmarked them and will refer back, and share too.
    Thanks also for all of the resource links.

  2. Thank you Owen Rogers for these outstanding guidelines. You are an invaluable resource for the Oral History world.
    Keep up the fine work!

  3. Madam, Sir,
    I’m restoring history of a WWII Air Force unit as a volunteer. I would be happy to learn more about your project and methodology – how to work with military history sources? Do you organise webinars or offline lectures / trainings open for public?
    All the best to you and to the VHP.

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